团鱼岩 Tuan Yu Yan (Turtle Rock, 2017)

There are no shortage of challenging documentaries about Chinese history (such as last year’s Dead Souls), many of which get a little bit too political for the Chinese state. However, films like Turtle Rock take a less overtly political viewpoint in tracking the rhythms of life in a small Chinese village. (NB Although the main credited director, Xiao Xiao, is a man, the co-director/producer is a woman, Lin Lin, hence my use of the ‘directed by a woman’ tag and inclusion on related lists.)


There’s such an enormous range of documentaries in the world, it’s ridiculous to put this in even the same category as something you might find hyped on Netflix. In its textures and its setting, this is far closer to a filmmaker like Lav Diaz — it is, after all, very much in the vein of ‘slow cinema’, with long tracking shots in lush black-and-white, with very little in the way of narrative to drive it. That said, it’s not boring: it presents this small mountainous village (where the director grew up), the rhythms of daily life and ritual, the gossip amongst the inhabitants, and little vignettes of their existence. Bamboo cropping early on provides the indelible sight of these enormously long stalks being carried precariously by a man and woman to a truck in the background, but the film manages to find wonderful images throughout, whether misty vistas or close-ups on pets, looming haggard faces crunching through nuts, or a woman chopping up garlic and chillis while haranguing an unseen neighbour about his poor tiling skills. It tends to avoid any overt political commentary aside from the postscript that this community had been formed many generations ago by those escaping mid-20th century war, and one imagines there have been many hardships over the intervening years, but people in the film seem to be getting along just fine without much of the modern world.

Turtle Rock film posterCREDITS
Directors Xiao Xiao 蕭瀟 and Lin Lin 林林; Cinematographer Xiao; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 21 January 2019.

Criterion Sunday 272: La commare secca (aka The Grim Reaper, 1962)

Bernardo Bertolucci’s first film is made in the years after Neo-Realism, with a script worked on by Pasolini, and has something of a similar feel to his compatriots in telling a mystery about a prostitute found murdered, whose body we see near the start. The police follow up with a number of suspects, whose intersecting stories we hear and see over the course of the film. The filmmaking is direct, but with little flourishes such as those of the dead woman getting ready for her day, each a single shot inserted before the torrential rainstorm that repeats through each of the stories we hear. There’s also a nighttime park where all the suspects cross each others’ paths, and shots of characters are seen repeated from multiple vantage points, suggesting the many counter-narratives that are presented here (and of course the debt it owes to Rashomon has been mentioned many times by critics, even if Bertolucci hadn’t seen it as he claimed).

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s an interview from 2003 with Bernardo Bertolucci about the film, in which he recalls starting his film career with Pasolini on the latter’s debut Accattone before being giving the reins of this Pasolini project at the age of 21 (Pasolini was focusing on Mamma Roma at the time). It was always tied to Pasolini, Bertolucci ruefully recalls, despite his best efforts to differentiate it, such as with a constantly moving camera or little poetic inserts (as mentioned in my review).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bernardo Bertolucci; Writers Bertolucci, Sergio Citti and Pier Paolo Pasolini (based on Pasolini’s short story); Cinematographer Giovanni Narzisi; Starring Giancarlo De Rosa; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 31 October 2019.

幕末太陽傳 Bakumatsu Taiyoden (A Sun-Tribe Myth from the Bakumatsu Era, aka Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate, 1957)

It’s all too easy to think of the 19th century here in the UK as the ‘Victorian era’ for the most part, and have an idea of what kind of feeling and look to expect from a 19th century-set film. However, other countries obviously have their own eras, and the Bakumatsu era lies towards the end of the 19th century in Japan, when the shogunate was ending and Japan was moving towards a less isolationist policy.


I get the feeling that the great works of Japanese art heralded in the West are generally in your Kurosawa school of well-mounted historical epics, but this Japanese favourite is clearly a comedy. The central character, a grifter who is mostly called “the Grifter” (Frankie Sakai), strikes me as nothing so much as a John Belushi-like figure of excess and troublesomeness, as he makes his living doing odd jobs and taking advantage of people at a brothel. The introductory section set in the modern era immediately suggests some contemporary criticism of Japanese post-war morality (under which prostitution was banned), but this works as a period-set rambunctious comedy from the time when Japan was starting to embrace the rest of the world, albeit not always willingly.

CREDITS
Director Yuzo Kawashima 川島雄三; Writers Kawashima, Shohei Imamura 今村昌平 and Keiichi Tanaka 田中啓一; Cinematographer Kurataro Takamura 高村倉太郎; Starring Frankie Sakai フランキー堺, Yoko Minamida 南田洋子, Sachiko Hidari 左幸子; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at aunt’s home (DVD), Gullane, Tuesday 26 December 2017.

Criterion Sunday 271: Touchez pas au grisbi (aka Honour Among Thieves, 1954)

Jacques Becker’s Casque d’or a couple years earlier already feels like a generation away from this film (and admittedly does have a period setting), but where that may have been a tight narrative that set up every sequence and followed through with resolve, this somehow feels more like a meandering atmosphere piece. At length the plot does come out, and it revolves around the “loot” (grisbi) of the title, but more than being about a swindle gone wrong, it’s about ageing gangsters reckoning with their mortality. Chief among these is Jean Gabin, who made something of a comeback with this film after years in the wilderness. As Mr Max, he knows he’s getting old — and as if to emphasise this, director Becker has him getting ready for bed, in silk pyjamas brushing his teeth, or looking balefully into a mirror while pinching his chin fat. He surrounds himself with much younger and more glamorous women, as all of his compatriots seem to do (one of them is Jeanne Moreau), almost as if to stave off the effects of age, but they all know they’re headed into obsolescence, and they lash out with regularity against the women and the younger thugs (like the well-built Lino Ventura, the chief antagonist). There’s a brutishness to it, stylishly evoked with all kinds of looming dark shadows around every corner, but it all seems pathetic more than anything else: few of them really seem in control, though Max is more effective at projecting this than some of the others. It’s a film about feelings and sadness, couched in a gangster form, and has more than a hint of The Godfather (not least in the repeated musical motif, very redolent of Nino Rota’s work on that film).

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s another five minutes or so of the Cinéastes de notre temps: Jacques Becker (1967, dir. Claude de Givray) documentary about the director, with the excerpt focusing on this film, naturally. We hear a little bit from Lino Ventura as well as the screenwriter and the original author Albert Simonin, plus a brief appearance from Truffaut to speak about Becker’s influential style.
  • There’s are a few brief interviews with the stars, including one from 20 years later with Lino Ventura (Grisbi was his debut, but by this point he’s an established star), with the composer Jean Wiener focusing on the brief snippet of score that Becker preferred to use (though he’d written much more), and with actor Daniel Cauchy who has a small role as a young thug.
  • The only other extra is a trailer, four minutes of punchy action from the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Becker; Writers Becker and Maurice Griffe (based on the novel by Albert Simonin); Cinematographer Pierre Montazel; Starring Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura, René Dary, Jeanne Moreau; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 28 October 2019.

Two Japanese Biopics about Artists: Tochuken Kumoemon (1936) and Utamaro and His Five Women (1946)

While there are a huge number of recent biopics I can (and have) reviewed recently during this themed week on the genre, they have also had popularity throughout the history of cinema, and in many other parts of the world. Today I am focusing on two Japanese examples I watched more or less back-to-back this past year, both of which are concerned with artists, and are made by among the better directors of Japanese cinema, Naruse and Mizoguchi.

Continue reading “Two Japanese Biopics about Artists: Tochuken Kumoemon (1936) and Utamaro and His Five Women (1946)”

3 Tage in Quiberon (3 Days in Quiberon, 2018)

Biopics are often about famous men (and made by men too), but increasingly women’s stories have been brought to the screen, whether in big budget biopic dramas like Hidden Figures or in little indie chamber pieces like this one, which is about a film star towards the end of her career.


This is on the whole a pretty solid chamber drama (more-or-less) set at an upscale resort hotel in France in c1980, as Romy Schneider (Marie Bäumer) is rather unsuccessfully in detox, while a German journalist and photographer (Charly Hübner) comes to interview her, and her friend Hilde (Birgit Minichmayr) stops by to offer emotional support. Shot in crisp black-and-white, the performances are all very good, even if it does run a little long — there’s a lot of the interview in there, and we get a sense of the fragile state of Schneider’s psyche as she breaks down over the course of the drama. Hilde’s character is the least ostentatious, but Minichmayr has worked with Jessica Hausner and Maren Ade, so she knows how to hold the camera’s attention for even a repressed, very interior person. You can tell it’s set in the early-1980s because everyone smokes constantly, everywhere, in restaurants, bars, hotel rooms… just always lighting up. It’s not always obvious why this was made, but as a portrait of depression, and the bleak insularity of stardom, it feels compelling at times. Also, the (all too brief) Denis Lavant appearance is most welcome.

3 Days in Quiberon film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Emily Atef; Cinematographer Thomas W. Kiennast; Starring Marie Bäumer, Birgit Minichmayr, Charly Hübner; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 19 November 2018.

Criterion Sunday 270: Casque d’or (1952)

After a decade or two of films noirs, films of picturesque hoodlums lurking in the chiaroscuro frame, the French were pretty excellent at black-and-white crime thrillers, and for me this must rank as one of the finest. Jacques Becker hits all the expected notes with Simone Signoret as Marie, a prostitute who hangs out with some rather unsavoury types (including the no-good Félix), who falls for a carpenter and ex-hood Georges (Serge Reggiani). There’s no shortage of doomed romance, of beautiful close-ups of Signoret and her striking golden hair (the “golden helmet” referenced by the title), and exquisitely framed and filmed sequences, as he falls back into a world of crime all for the sake of Marie. The narrative is tightly structured and moves forward implacably, save for an all-too-brief sequence of the two in love by a riverside somewhere in the middle of the film, before the tragic denouement is set up.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s eight minutes of silent 8mm footage shot on the set of the film, during the sequence where Georges and Marie first meet and dance together, presented with an optional commentary from Philip Kemp, who picks out the key figures and explains a little of what we’re seeing. It’s certainly interesting to get this brief glimpse at how studio filmmaking was done in France before the New Wave.
  • We get around 27 minutes of Cinéastes de notre temps: Jacques Becker (1967, dir. Claude de Givray), originally well over an hour in length, although another five minutes show up on the Touchez pas au grisbi disc, next up in the Criterion collection. Several of Becker’s collaborators speak about his work (he died in 1960, shortly after Le Trou), and Givray’s technique with the talking heads is to cross-cut between them, as if they’re all in dialogue with one another, and may be a tip of the hat to Becker’s own (relatively) frenetic editing style, which his editor Marguerite Renoir speaks a bit about.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Becker; Writers Becker and Jacques Companéez; Cinematographer Robert Le Febvre; Starring Simone Signoret, Serge Reggiani, Claude Dauphin; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 27 October 2019.

1985 (2018)

Not every Christmas film is about Christmas, some of them are just set at that time of year. That shouldn’t stop people claiming them as “Christmas films” as even if they don’t star Santa Claus as a character, that doesn’t mean they don’t have something meaningful to say about that time of year. In this American indie film from last year, it’s about being with family, and what that means if you’re somewhat alienated from them in various ways.


A film about Adrian (Cory Michael Smith), a young gay man returning from NYC for the Christmas holidays to visit his Texan parents, this low-key small scale indie drama, shot on black-and-white film and largely confined to the few days he’s in Texas for the holidays. It has an elegiac feel greatly aided by an orchestral soundtrack, which, given the film’s lead actor, reminds me of Todd Haynes’s Carol — and indeed one gets the sense of Haynes’ work lingering over this rendering of the period when he was starting to make his own first films. There are a lot of pointed touches to hint at Adrian’s situation (which is all fairly clear from the title and from the film’s outset) — touches which at times feel just a little too heavy-handed — but the film does its best to move these into genuinely moving situations without getting too buried in sentiment. Mostly it’s just really nicely acted by its small ensemble, and a good example of what a proper little American indie should look like.

1985 film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Yen Tan; Cinematographer Hutch; Starring Cory Michael Smith, Virginia Madsen, Michael Chiklis; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 27 December 2018.

Criterion Sunday 269: けんかえれじい Kenka Ereji (Fighting Elegy, 1966)

Certainly a striking film from Seijun Suzuki, though he’s not exactly a director known for being boring. It’s set in the 1930s, as Japan teeters on the brink of militaristic nationalism, and the hero Kazoku (Hideki Takahashi) seems to be a prime candidate for making that particular journey. He’s raised Catholic and in love with a girl at his boarding house, but repressed sexuality and masculine bravado means he gets into lots of fights with his peers at school. Being Suzuki, these are all choreographed with an almost comic glee, though they do go on rather a bit as the film progresses. It feels both comically satirical about Japan’s recent past, but also imbued with the confusion of youth. It’s rather a marvel.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Seijun Suzuki 鈴木清順; Writer Kaneto Shindo 新藤兼人 (based on the novel by Takashi Suzuki 鈴木隆); Cinematographer Kenji Hagiwara 萩原憲治; Starring Hideki Takahashi 高橋英樹; Length 86 minutes.

Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Saturday 21 September 2019.

Sátántangó (1994)

Aside from Lav Diaz‘s work, there are few long films in recent years more mythical than Bela Tarr’s seven-hour Hungarian black-and-white Sátántangó, a film loved by those who’ve seen it and which represents something of a badge of honour among most cinephiles. I’ve not (yet) seen it in a cinema, but every few years seems to bring an opportunity to do so. It’s now 25 years old.


I realise this is accepted by many as a pinnacle of a certain kind of filmmaking, the ne plus ultra of slow cinema, and it is very good. Great, even. I’d been meaning to watch it every since seeing Werckmeister Harmonies a couple of times back in 2000, but it was still pretty mythical back then. It takes a small Hungarian village community as its setting, as charismatic charlatan Irimiás (Mihály Vig) comes to town, but those who know the film probably know this. I’d just finished reading the novel and I’m impressed by how closely it cleaves to that, but when you have seven hours of running time to play with, fidelity to the source is easier to achieve. The cinematography is luminously monochrome, or rather just as often drenched in bleak melancholic half-light, but that’s appropriate. It’s about people who are led, ceding their power to an authority figure, like an allegory of the citizens to a kleptocratic state, or sheep — cows, perhaps, given the open shot — led by wild promises of secession into their own doom but profiting the political classes (no, nothing on my mind right now). It’s all there, all as slow as you want it, long tracking shots down endless roads, characters walking off to the horizon, scenes that pause so the characters can grab a snack or go to the loo (a provocation to any cinema audience). This is a great film for those who like its thing (I do), but I’ll want to catch it at the cinema some day before I make any grandiose pronouncements beyond that.

Sátántangó film posterCREDITS
Director Béla Tarr; Writers Tarr and László Krasznahorkai (based on the novel by Krasznahorkai); Cinematographer Gábor Medvigy; Starring Mihály Vig, Putyi Horváth, László Lugossy; Length 432 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 7 January 2017.